Did Stories Exist Before the Smartphone Scroll?

Ever get the feeling you’re trapped in a bad news cycle? Unfortunately, it feels like it’s very hard to escape from these days, as our news feeds pitch us from one crisis to the next with algorithmic glee. And of course we find it very hard to resist the temptation to click.

We all know that a diet of bad news, along with practices such as doomscrolling,  is bad for our mental well-being – a point acknowledged by the World Health Organization – but have we now been doing it for so long that it has become the norm? I mean when was the last time that you actively sought out some good news?!

I have written before about the benefits of storytelling when it comes to making an impact in presentations and I would like to return to the topic in relation to bad news. Unlike the electronic realms of the internet, where emotions are pulled and tweaked to extremes by bots and algorithms seeking to colonize your time, the real world is thankfully a far more nuanced place of better balanced.

Not true, I hear you cry, as you flex your text claw to show me the latest outrageous Karen, distasteful fellow passenger or spiteful lout dancing across your social feed.  I beg to differ however. Away from the keyboard and the screen, people thrive on feeling good about themselves and the world around them and want to hear stories that reinforce this. It’s not only true in our private lives, but also in our working ones.

Am I suggesting that you seek stories soaked in saccharine in order to counteract all the bad news? No, not at all! But I am advising that the bad news is in proportion and that the stories contain highpoints, especially if you are presenting to your peers and seeking to inspire! For stories provide an audience with context, purpose and meaning and allow us to connect with experiences which we can relate to despite them not being our own.

The world’s history stories comprise of a surprisingly small number of tropes – in fact the majority of stories follow one of just 7 plotlines as identified by Christopher Booker in his 30 year work The Seven Basic Plots  (The Hero’s Journey, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth). Each type of story generally focuses on the ups and downs of a protagonist, just repackaging the journey in a different way (and the importance of this is relevant when thinking about how to package your own stories).

In addition to any plot there is also an emotional arc along which the subject/character will travel. While an arc such as a rags to riches storyline is effective (a common theme in biographical stories), it can often be rather one dimensional for the audience as stories such as these, while incredible, seem to carry a pinch of luck that is too good to be true.  Rags to riches and back to rags again does add a certain twist however as does, naturally, the reverse.

By comparison, a happy-sad-happy arc (often known in plot terms as the ‘man in the hole’) is more rewarding for the audience, because it is more relatable.  It starts from the premise that the subject is happy, encounters adversity (becomes sad) but overcomes it and becomes happy again as a result. In life, and especially in business, it is the ups and downs and bumps in the road that make us stronger; you have to have the lows to appreciate the highs.   Indeed, this arc is the most successful plot line in movie history – you only have to watch any Pixar release to see that.

Some of the more memorable presentations I have witnessed have involved presenters who have  appreciated the significance of good  storytelling. They know how to use stories to connect with their audience in a way that a straightforward flat pack presentation doesn’t.  Stories add depth, as well as those all-important layers of emotion which penetrate the psyche and promote empathy.

Which brings us back to the bad news cycle. Yes, it’s great for stimulating the index finger, for inciting a quick flash of dismay or outrage, but what does it really achieve in terms of stimulating your emotional and thinking being? As society we have been telling stories for thousands of years (presently dated at 45,500 in light of cave paintings recently discovered in Indonesia).

By contrast, our smartphone induced consumption of stories was inconceivable before the invention of the i-phone in 2007. Meanwhile, our accelerated lurch into social media addiction – which has spawned our recent culture of doomscrolling – was only recognised as recently as 5 years ago as an issue we should be taking seriously. One can only hope we are in ‘the hole’ of the happy, sad, happy tale of telling stories…